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Scientists Make First Complete Genome of Desert Locust

Scientists Make First Complete Genome of Desert Locust

Wednesday, 29 June, 2022 - 06:45
A farmer holds up handful of locusts that descended on a field in Byblos, north of Beirut, November 2, 2004. REUTERS/Sharif Karim

The first high-quality genome of the desert locust -- the most destructive migratory insect in the world -- has been produced by US Department of Agriculture Research Service scientists.

Genome is a set of genetic information stored in the DNA or RNA. Producing a genome requires samples with specific characteristics.

That locust was provided by chemical ecologist Baldwyn Torto with the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya. He and his team tracked down swarms of locusts, collecting specimens across Kenya until he had two parents that he was able to breed to produce an offspring of known pedigree.

The scientists were able to go from sample collection to a final assembled genome in under 5 months. The desert locust is one of the largest insect genomes ever completed and it was all done from a single locust.

The genome of the desert locust is nearly three times the size of the human genome, explains entomologist Scott Geib with the ARS Tropical Crop and Commodity Protection Research Unit in Hawaii, and one of the team leaders. “We were concerned that, faced with this huge and very likely complex desert locust genome, it was going to be an extremely long and difficult job. However, we were able to go from sample collection to a final assembled genome in under 5 months,” he notes.

ARS has made the genome available to the international research community through the National Center for Biotechnology Information, to help fight this dangerous pest.

Desert locust plagues are cyclic and have been recorded since the times of the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt, as far back as 3200 B.C. They caused devastation in East Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia in the 2020-2022 season, threatening food security in many countries.

A small swarm can eat as much food in a day as would feed 35,000 people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Current desert locust control mostly depends on locating swarms and spraying them with broad-spectrum pesticides. Ultimately, this genomics work could decrease dependence on such pesticides, using other measures that could be figured out after the determination of the genome, explains Scott Geib.

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